Detail of a cartoon published a year before Jackson's death satirizing his
execution of Arbuthnot and Ambrister. "By the Eternal! you old Hags!"
says Jackson, "if I get hold of you, I'll hang you all up under the 7th
section as I did Arbuthnot and Ambrister!" Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,
Jackson's infamous execution of two British citizens during the war
to main trail
The action of the First Seminole War that received the most public attention did not directly involve blacks or Indians, but rather two English men charged with aiding the Seminole allies.
Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot had ties of both commerce and espionage to the Seminoles. Arbuthnot traded with the Indians near St. Augustine, and blatantly took their cause in the fight against Jackson. Ambrister identified more with the Black Seminoles, saying that he came to Florida to complete the work of
Lieutenant Woodbine (the British officer who had led the construction
of the Negro Fort) and "see the negroes righted." Other motives than altruism doubtlessly played into each man's designs, but they both evinced sympathy
-- and in Arbuthnot's case useful action -- on behalf of the
After Jackson captured Arbuthnot, the trader sent a word of warning to his Indian friends under Chief Bowlegs:
"The main drift of the Americans is to destroy the black population of Suwannee. Tell my friend Boleck, that it is throwing away his people to attempt to resist such a powerful force as will be down on Suwannee."
Unfortunately for Arbuthnot, Jackson's men found the letter and other papers when they attacked the Suwannee. These papers were dangerous materials for General Jackson. They threw, in the delicate phrasing of historian John Mahon, "some doubt on the official American position that the cause of the trouble rested solely on the Indians and their European abettors." Arbuthnot, for example, painted a clear (and we now know credible) picture of
how filibusters from Georgia incited the war by settling on Spanish and Seminole lands in Florida, while launching raids into the colony for cattle and slaves.
Andrew Jackson was not interested in seeing the viewpoints of Arbuthnot and Ambrister reach a wide audience. He convened a military court, which promptly ordered their execution.
Overnight, the officers of the court had misgivings about
executing Ambrister and commuted his sentence. Jackson overruled them. On April 29, 1818, Arbuthnot was hanged from the masthead of his schooner and Ambrister was shot by a firing squad.
In executing the men, Jackson preserved the impression that Indians and outside agitators had created the problems in Florida. The two men, he said, had been "legally convicted as exciters of this savage and negro war; legally condemned, and most justly punished."
Congressmen did not probe too deeply into the causes of the war, but under international pressure they did pass a resolution condemning the executions. The incident caused trouble for Jackson throughout his life.
The incident also betrayed a consistent turn of the American mind, with Jackson blaming foreigners for a conflict that had strong indigenous roots. It was, after all, easier to blame the foreign agitators, and to execute them, than to admit that there was any justice to the cause of his enemies.
ASPMA 1: 722, ASPFR 4: 579-96, Davis 165-69, Mahon 25-26.
Part 1, Early Years: l